Phonological Awareness, Phonemic Awareness, & Phonics

Phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics are essential literacy skills for children to be successful readers and writers. Phonological awareness is the phonological or sound system that comprises oral language. It is critical for reading success and when a child’s awareness of the phonological structure is evaluated, the results can help predict later reading ability. It is a child’s knowledge that sentences are comprised of words that have syllables and then sounds. Phonological awareness skills should be mastered by approximately 1st grade. However, many elementary, middle, and even high school children lack effective phonological awareness. They need skilled and targeted intervention to remediate these weak areas to increase their reading decoding and reading fluency abilities. There is a developmental hierarchy of phonological awareness as skills increase in complexity and build on each other to maximize reading success. Phonemic awareness is part of phonological awareness and refers to a child’s knowledge of individual sounds.

Children typically develop awareness of larger sound units (words, syllables, intrasyllabic units) before they start attending to phonemes, but instruction focusing on these larger units should not be thought of as a prerequisite for instructional activities that support children’s phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness supports word reading skills for children with various diagnoses.

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. Examples include segmenting a sentence into words, identifying rhymes, blending onset and rime, naming rhyming words, recognizing alliteration, identifying the syllables in a word, blending syllables, segmenting syllables, and deleting syllables. Phonological awareness includes activities at different units or levels of language, including the word level, syllable level, intrasyllabic level (e.g., onset-rime), and—most critically for this discussion—the phoneme level.

The most complex — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. Examples include blending sounds into words, segmenting words into sounds, adding sounds to create words, deleting sounds, and substituting  the sounds in spoken words.

Phonological Awareness Activities

1. Rhyming Games:

Bingo can be used by giving a word to the player and asking the player to find the rhyming pair on the board. In small groups, players can state a rhyme in turn-taking activities.

2. Alliteration Activities:

Let children become creative by making their own alliterations and tongue twisters.

Exhibit stories that display alliteration.

3. Sentence Activities:

Distinguish separate words in a sentence and label each word with the part of speech (e.g. noun, verb, adjective).

4. Singing Songs:

For younger children, sing songs with hand movements that rhyme and contain alliteration.

5. Syllable Identification:

Count each syllable in words and sentences. Create a game by letting children clap or stomp for specific prefixes such as “un-” “in-” “de-” etc.

Phonemic Awareness Activities

1. Isolating Sounds:

Ask the student for the initial and final sounds – to become aware of the isolated sounds.

2. Segmenting Sounds:

Separate each sound in a simple word such as /cat/.

3. Adding Phonemes:

Add /s/ to common words to recognize plurality.

4. Substituting Sounds:

Let students change the initial phonemes to create new words. Example: /p/ in pat to /k/ in cat.

5. Deleting Sounds:

Take /h/ away from math to make the word /mat/.

It is important for speech/language pathologists and educators to assess children’s phonological awareness skills. You may use this Phonological Awareness Progress Monitoring Tool to effectively do so. Get direct access now.

If you need a standardized or formal assessment, speech language pathologists, special education teachers, or school psychologists may use the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, Second Edition (CTOPP-2).

Public school districts throughout the U.S. may also use other screening instruments with phonological awareness components including the Dibels 8th Edition. MClass, with Dibels 8th Edition, provides teacher administered literacy assessments and intervention for children in K-6th grade. Learn more about that here.

Other school districts may use a diagnostic test such as iReady reading to evaluate various components of literacy such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. Learn more about that here.

What is phonics? This is an instruction method that requires teachers to teach children letter-sound relationships. When children are taught phonics, they learn how to read letters, consonant blends, diagraphs (e.g. two letters that make one sound /sh/ and /ch/) by saying the corresponding sounds. Skilled readers use phonics to decode or sound out words rather than mainly memorizing sight words. Children learn vowels, that every syllable has a vowel, and consonant sounds. It is important that multisensory strategies are used for them to learn letters, keywords, and sounds. Additionally, children may practice reading words with various word families or words with similar ending sounds (e.g. at, all, ink, ook). They will also learn that one sound /k/ may have different spellings such as c, k, ck, or ch.  It is important for children to understand phonics because a change in the order of letters or a simple vowel change changes a word’s meaning.

Phonics is often taught in kindergarten and first grade. However, it must be taught in other grades when children have not mastered this essential literacy skill. Children that are identified with specific learning disability or dyslexia often struggle with phonics. However, some children many not have a disability or dyslexia, but need proper research based intervention to learn to read accurately and fluently.

Phonics Activities

1. Visual & Tactile Cues:

Children will look at flashcards with letters. Then, write the letter(s) on a mini white board with dry erase marker or on a multisensory surface.

2. Blending Practice:

Children can clap their hands to represent each sound or tap their finger to represent each sound in a blend

(e.g. bl……/b/ /l/, br ……/b/ /r/….. sk……./s/  /k/)

3. Finger Spelling:

Children can use fingers as a visual aid to help separate or segment sounds on fingers.

4. Word Mapping:

Children can draw squares around each sound. Then write the words.

5. Digital Practice:

Children can use technology via an ipad, tablet, or website to play phonics games.

Additionally, the Florida Center for Reading Research has numerous activities according to grade level that teachers, intervention specialists, speech/language pathologists may use to provide practice opportunities to remediate phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics. You may access that excellent information below:

Lively Letters is another excellent multi-sensory program that provides phonics intervention. It is important to know that these are just a few recommendations. You may learn more about that program below: